"I can tell you our main demographic is white guys with beards,” said Richard Marsden of the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship, the martial arts studio he co-founded on East Indian School Road.
He went on: “It sounds racist to say so, and I worry about that. But the truth is, that’s who’s interested in European martial arts. Sparring is a main part of our club, and sparring isn’t for everybody.”
Marsden, who grew up here and attended Horizon High School and ASU, trains those white bearded guys — and women and people of color and clean-shaven folks, too, he insisted — to re-create fencing strategies of the distant past.
“What we do is, we take historical sword-fighting manuals from as far back as the 14th century and as modern as, say, the 18th century, and we try to re-create what’s in them, warts and all,” he said. “So we’ll take a Renaissance-era book with drawings and text, and we’ll say, ‘Here’s a guard position, and here’s how to counter it. Let’s learn that.’”
Outside of the studio, people typically don’t know what he’s talking about.
“This is new,” said Marsden, who’s also the president of the board of the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance. “Ten years ago, studying historical swordsmanship wasn’t a thing. The Society for Creative Anachronism has been around for a while, but they dress in costumes and do sword-fighting, they re-create a medieval society. We’re a martial art.”
The HEMA crowd still holds tournaments and has competitions with rules, Marsden said, but with his studio he liked to help would-be jousters see the bigger picture of fencing — how historical European martial arts is different from sword-fighting or the value of learning to joust. That’s because, Marsden explained, dueling had evolved from being a line of defense to becoming a sport.
“Once something becomes a sport,” he thought, “the focus is on winning, and not on staying true to the material.”
Historical European martial arts are catching on. “There are more clubs, not less,” said Marsden, who teaches history to high schoolers when there isn’t a pandemic at hand. “We’ve got tournaments around the world. We’ve doubled our membership in the last couple years, and that’s without advertising. I’ve gone from asking ‘Is HEMA even a thing?’ to saying, ‘It is!’”
Not so much lately, though, considering COVID-19. Although his studio doesn’t fit neatly into the list of businesses Governor Ducey asked to close, Marsden locked his doors for the time being, anyway. “Even though our classes are generally fewer than 10 people at a session, our gear doesn’t prevent you from getting someone else sick,” he said. “Those helmets are not on all the time, and the face guard is black mesh, built for breathing through. So we’ve closed down for a while. We don’t want people getting sick.”
Before the pandemic, Marsden said he’d been trying to cast a wider net. More women were signing up for jousting classes, so he’d added a Sunday women’s class. Most students were between the ages of 30 and 40, but some older folks were looking for a replacement for boring cardiovascular workouts — so Marsden added a sword-based exercise class called SwordFit.
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On the other hand, he hadn’t seen a lot of actors turning up looking for fencing lessons.
“I know fencing is a thing in acting, especially with Shakespearean actors,” he said. “But there’s a big difference between staging a fight for an Errol Flynn movie or a theater play, where you’re creating a mythology about what sword-fighting looks like.
“We’re part of nerd culture,” admitted Marsden, who’s 41 and has been sword-fighting since he was 15. “The truly athletic ass-kickers are going to join MMA. We don’t get those guys. Everyone here is a little nerdy.”
He paused and took a breath. “And I say that in a really loving way.”